Posted on | July 31, 2012 | 44 Comments
Pioneered by Ron Ziegler during the Nixon Administration, the Republican Party policy of contemptuous mistreatment of the press corps produces yet another predictable “success” :
WARSAW — A Mitt Romney aide told reporters to “shove it” Tuesday morning after the American press corps here shouted questions at the presidential candidate.
As Romney was walking away from Pilsudski Square toward his vehicle, reporters asked him about his string of gaffes and whether he had any comment for Palestinians, some of whom took offense at the Republican’s suggestion Monday in Jerusalem that Israel’s economy is superior because of cultural advantages Israelis enjoy. Romney ignored the questions and got in his car.
But his traveling press secretary was furious.
“Kiss my ass; this is a holy site for the Polish people,” said aide Rick Gorka. “Show some respect.”
Gorka then told a reporter to “shove it.”
This Ziegler-style hostility toward reporters was something I experienced during the 2008 campaign. No publication on the planet had been more hostile to the Clintons than The American Spectator, yet when I showed up on the campaign trail to cover Hillary’s primary campaign, the reception I got was surprisingly cordial.
Twice I covered impromptu post-event “availabilities” (i.e., press conferences) with the candidate, including one in Shepherdstown, W.Va., where I sat in the front row less than 10 feet from Hillary while she took questions from a press corps that kept asking variations on the question, “When are you going to quit?”
When I subsequently went out on the trail to cover John McCain, by contrast, there were no press conferences, and when Sarah Palin was added to the ticket, she was kept within a protective “bubble.” In fact, McCain campaign staffers at times tried to cordon off reporters in a pen, so as to prevent them even from interviewing people attending campaign rallies.
This is what GOP operatives like to call “message discipline,” and it has the predictable effect of entirely alienating the press corps.
Suppose that you are a correspondent who is following around a candidate at considerable expense to your news organization. Your bosses expect that you’re going to provide them with actual news, and hopefully something exclusive. Instead, you go to three events a day at which the candidate gives the same basic stump speech over and over. There’s never a press conference, never a minute of unscripted access to the candidate, and the campaign staffers are under orders never to tell you anything useful in terms of actual news that might distract from the pre-approved Message of the Day.
Wouldn’t that piss you off? And especially if your editors had sent you all the way to Warsaw, Poland, for such a dog-and-pony show?
How many times have I explained to my friends — many of whom are in fact Republican operatives — why this approach doesn’t work? Hundreds. Yet the same Ziegler-style policy continues to be Standard Operating Procedure, because you will never meet a Republican operative who doesn’t consider himself an authoritative expert on media relations, and they will heed no advice from actual journalists.
UPDATE: In checking back on my 2008 campaign covered, I found my American Spectator article about Hillary’s appearance in Shepherdstown, which was the day after she’d lost North Carolina and barely squeaked past Obama in Indiana:
Hillary’s supporters cheered and chanted her name at the West Virginia event, but reporters pounced at a post-rally press conference, suggesting it might be time for her to strike the tent. Does her vow to keep fighting, asked one network TV reporter, mean that Clinton will continue her campaign all the way until the vote on the convention floor in Denver?
“I’m staying in this race until there’s a nominee, and I obviously am going to work as hard as I can to become that nominee,” she answered. “So we will continue to contest these elections and move forward.”
The reporter fired back with a follow-up question: “But what do you say to those Democrats who fear that you’re putting the Democratic Party’s chances at risk by…continuing to stay in?”
Such questions caused Rush Limbaugh (who claimed that his “Operation Chaos” delivered Hillary’s margin of victory in Indiana) to wonder why the “Drive-By Media” were so concerned with the Democratic Party’s chances in November.
“All of these media types are demanding that Hillary drop out of the race now . . . and the Drive-Bys are saying, ‘Get out of the race to save the party.’ Now, what’s the party got to do with the media? I ask rhetorically, of course,” Limbaugh told his listeners after watching TV coverage of the Shepherdstown press conference.
The reporter shouting hostile questions was Mark Knoller of CBS News, an obnoxious slob, the Michael Moore of the White House press corps. Knoller’s presumption of speaking on behalf of “those Democrats” was scarcely presumptuous, of course. And the fact that Hillary was willing to stand there in front of all those cameras and answer Knoller’s pushy questions was quite a contrast to the inherently defensive way the McCain campaign kept the press at arm’s length.
UPDATE II: Bill Quick insists that I’ve got it “bass-ackwards,” which is the typical response I get from my friends when I try to explain the GOP’s media-relations problem. The undeniable fact of liberal bias has become such a gigantic obstacle in the minds of Republicans that it induces a sort of mental paralysis, so that they are incapable of thinking of reporters as human beings, as individuals.
This was what infuriated me when Melissa Clouthier declared, “A journalist is a wild animal with an appetite for conservative meat and should be interacted with that way — always.”
Really? The entire press corps — including, inter alia, Byron York and Carl Cameron, to say nothing of myself — is to be condemned pre-emptively and categorically as sub-human monsters? Do you suppose that such a contemptuous attitude can be hidden? Or, if you give the “wild animals” of the press credit for having the intuition to detect that you despise their very existence, do you suppose that they will respond to your hostility by giving you better coverage than they otherwise would?
When I objected to Melissa’s all-encompassing condemnation of the newsman’s trade (“Conservatives Against Journalism,” June 26, 2010), this made me a villain. The fact that I’ve been in the news business since 1986 doesn’t qualify me as knowing anything about “media strategy.” My assertion to the contrary — and in contradiction to the Ron Ziegler approach to press relations that is standard thinking among Republicans — was viewed not only as a personal insult toward Melissa, but toward every Republican who shared her opinions.
Look: Reporters are human beings, and human beings respond to incentives. You are never going to encourage reporters to provide fair coverage if, in the carrot-and-stick calculus of incentives, they know they’re going to get the stick every time, no matter what they report. Neither are you going to be able to establish any kind of working relationship with people unless you (a) treat them as individuals, and (b) deal with them on a basis of honesty.
The campaign has a job: To get the candidate elected.
The press has a job: To cover the campaign.
Insofar as liberal bias makes this working relationship difficult for Republicans, it is because some reporters (wrongly and unfairly) view their job as making sure the Republican doesn’t get elected.
OK, so how about this? When the campaign perceives that certain reporters — as individuals — are blatantly engaged in hostile partisanship, they address their complaints in an informal setting toward the offending reporter in an honest and professional manner.
“Hey, c’mon, Mark, what’s with all the gotcha questions, huh? Are you working for CBS News or are you working for the Obama campaign?”
There are some reporters who are beyond shame in their biased attitudes, “having their conscience seared with a hot iron,” as it were. But I believe that some lingering sentiment of fairness — some tiny spark of humanity — probably still exists even in the depraved souls of such creatures as Mark Knoller. The alternative to such a belief would require us to abandon any hope that the pervasive wretchedness of the American press can ever be even mildly reformed, to surrender forever any effort at getting any actual truth from the media.
Call me a fool for believing that an optimistic attitude is better than the helpless passivity that pessimism inspires. As a great man once said, “It is history that teaches us to hope.”
UPDATE III: John Hinderaker takes note of the “hypercritical” nature of coverage of Romney’s foreign trip, and Romney himself has now weighed in on the subject of media bias:
Asked about his missteps in an interview with Fox News’ Carl Cameron before he left Poland on Tuesday, Romney accused reporters of trivializing the substance of his trip and trying to divert attention from President Obama’s stewardship of the economy.
“And I realize that there will be some in the Fourth Estate, or whichever estate, who are far more interested in finding something to write about that is unrelated to the economy, to geopolitics, to the threat of war, to the reality of conflict in Afghanistan today, to a nuclearization of Iran,” Romney said, according to a transcript of the interview that aired on Tuesday morning. “They’ll instead try and find anything else to divert from the fact that these last four years have been tough years for our country.”
This is both true and newsworthy. And an honest, direct, but not overtly hostile confrontation between Romney and those in the press corps who are actively engaged in attempting to sabotage his campaign is long overdue. Reporters are under no obligation to be absolutely neutral, but they are under an obligation to be honest.
Bob Dylan once said that, I think.
UPDATE IV: To attempt to bring this argument to some sort of conclusion — I’ve got some actual reporting to do today, and can’t dwell much longer on this — let me say that what bugs me about the Republican tendency to use media bias as an excuse for failure.
If media bias were really such an insuperable obstacle to GOP success, no Republican would ever be elected anywhere. Obviously, some Republicans are able to run effective campaigns and perhaps even occasionally garner press coverage that isn’t entirely negative.
By using media bias as an all-purpose scapegoat for Republican failure, GOP politicians and campaign operatives prevent anyone (including themselves) from asking whether Republicans themselves may be partly responsible for their hostile relations with the media.
It’s sort of like the embittered guy who, after a divorce, places all the blame for the breakup on his ex-wife. Then he re-marries, and that marriage also ends in divorce, and once again, to hear him tell the story, it’s all his ex-wife’s fault. So he’s 0-for-2, and wants you to believe that this is just bad luck: He coincidentally got stuck with two bad wives.
When you hear a woe-is-me story like that, isn’t your gut-hunch suspicion that maybe this guy has problems of his own? In fact, don’t you think that his insistence on placing the blame on his ex-wives is a symptom of that problem, namely his inability to accept responsibility for his own personal failures and shortcomings?
Therfore, when I see a candidate as wretched as the 2008 GOP presidential nominee, who employs in key positions such faithless backstabbers as Steve Schmidt and Nicolle Wallace, and then I hear Republicans whining about media bias — no, I’m sorry, I ain’t buying that.
Blame the loser who lost the election.